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Ken Clarke’s tin-eared approach shows why the infected blood inquiry is needed 40 years on

4 min read

Until this week, Kenneth Clarke had refused to engage with attempts to uncover what happened 40 years ago. His lack of empathy, contrition or humility was shocking, striking - but informative.

Sir Brian Langstaff, chair of the Infected Blood Inquiry, this week told Kenneth Clarke at the conclusion of the Lord’s three days at the Inquiry: "I can't think that anyone who listened to your evidence will forget it in a hurry."  

In the first week of the Parliamentary summer recess, I watched the three days of evidence from the former Health Minister and Health Secretary at the NHS Infected Blood Inquiry with growing disappointment.

Many people waited to hear what Lord Clarke had to say about his role as a Minster in the Department of Health at the time of the largest treatment disaster in NHS history. Until this week, he had refused to engage with attempts to uncover what happened 40 years ago. 

I comment as someone who has chaired the APPG on Haemophilia and Contaminated Blood for many years. 

Firstly, whilst being plain-speaking and robust may work for this senior “big beast” in the Westminster bubble, or in dealing with the media, the approach was wholly tin-eared when giving evidence to a public inquiry held in the shadow of so many lost and ruined lives. 

Lord Clarke seemed to struggle to understand that he needed to answer for his actions - or inactions

Sitting in the inquiry room a few feet away from Lord Clarke were some of those who had been infected and affected by contaminated blood. His lack of empathy, contrition or humility was shocking, striking - but informative.

I am not surprised that several victims wanted to censure Clarke for being “arrogant, pompous and contemptuous towards people who had suffered so much”. Sam Stein QC made an application on behalf of several families to ask Clarke how he felt he had conducted himself. It was telling that Inquiry chair Sir Brian Langstaff replied that he well understood the reasons for the application, before refusing it. 

Secondly, as a veteran Cabinet Minister Lord Clarke’s general approach to accountability at Westminster was to be combative and challenging. He certainly dished out plenty of that to Lead Counsel to the Inquiry Jenny Richards QC, alleging at one point that the questions she was asking were “pretty pointless”.

Being held to account in the forensic environment of a public inquiry was clearly uncomfortable for Lord Clarke. He could not get away with the bluster and deflection that too often suffices in the Commons Chamber. Clarke offered a regular commentary on what he deemed relevant questions, usurping the role of Inquiry chair Sir Brian Langstaff. Clarke also stated that he would reject the conclusions of the Inquiry if they were not to his liking.

Lord Clarke seemed to struggle to understand that he needed to answer for his actions - or inactions - as a Minister, even if it was many years ago, and to explain himself clearly and coherently. What also concerned me was his evident lack of homework - at one point he thought Factor 8 might be administered by a pill.

Clarke displayed a lack of understanding of the differing risks for moderate haemophiliacs compared to those with severe haemophilia. Lord Clarke’s claims that haemophiliacs had received the best treatment available in the early 1980s, based on the best available medical advice at the time, will be examined closely. However, he made little reference to the legion of others who were given infected blood in other NHS treatments – from childbirth to dental work.

Clarke talked about the fact that legal liability had never been established in the UK, but didn't recognise that other countries, including Ireland, accepted that harm had been done to people by the State, without the need for liability to be proven. It may be some time since he had to grapple with these issues, but not apparently refreshing himself with a basic understanding of the issues before giving evidence left him ill-prepared. As a result, it may be that his evidence is not as helpful to the Inquiry as it could have been. 

Finally, Lord Clarke complained throughout his evidence that many questions related to events, meetings, decisions and conversations from “nearly 40 years ago”. This glosses over the reluctance of governments for many years to legislate for a public inquiry earlier. This included administrations in which Lord Clarke served immediately after key events in the scandal. Perhaps his memory may have been fresher then.

This resistance to calls for accountability means that this public inquiry is decades overdue.  What could be described as an establishment cover-up turned a medical disaster into a major national scandal.

Lord Clarke was part of an establishment that refused to be held to account. He could have been part of the solution by supporting calls for an inquiry years ago. He chose otherwise.

At least he has demonstrated, yet again, the need for this inquiry.


Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North and chair of the APPG on Haemophilia and Contaminated Blood.

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